Lately, as I watch events unfold In the modern Orthodox community, I feel like I am trapped in a bad dream, watching a familiar tragic drama unfold.
I already know the ending. I also know, however, that it does not have to be this way. That, after all, is what makes it a tragedy.
Modern Orthodoxy is standing on the brink of an irrevocable split. Sides are being ever-more-clearly drawn over a series of critical issues, including women’s role in Judaism, the acceptance of LGBT individuals into the Orthodox community, conversion, changes in prayer ritual, and more. On one side of the divide stand the “open Orthodox,” advocating immediate, radical change. On the other side stand the “centrists,” self-appointed protectors of the status quo. At the extremes, both sides are becoming increasingly strident and militant. An example of this troubling phenomenon is evidenced in a recent series of events surrounding the question of women’s leadership within the Orthodox community.
In response to the continuing ordination of women and the appointment of these women to rabbinical positions in the open Orthodox community, a recent resolution was put forward by members of the Rabbinical Council of America, reiterating that organization’s long-standing opposition to women’s ordination. Many within the RCA, including me, opposed this resolution, feeling the repetition of the RCA’s already stated position to be unnecessary. Nonetheless, the resolution passed.
The reaction from the other side was swift and harsh. Critical statements aimed at the RCA were immediately issued by JOFA (the Jewish Orthodox Feminists Association) and other open Orthodox institutions, articles appeared in the press accusing the RCA of being “confrontational.” An original song mocking the RCA even appeared on YouTube. The extremists on both side of the fence again held sway, and the modern Orthodox community was pulled even further apart.
A review of overall trends over these past years, however, reveals that the divisive path evidenced by this interchange was not inevitable. For years, many centrist modern Orthodox rabbis and institutions have worked diligently to increase advanced learning and leadership opportunities for women. The GPATS (Graduate Program for Women in Advanced Talmudic Study) track at Yeshiva University has produced, and continues to produce, an exemplary cadre of women scholars who already have made profound contributions to the Jewish world at large; Nishmat’s Yoetzet Halacha program actively trains women experts in the laws of marriage and family purity, and many of them now serve as “halachic advisors” in communities such as my own, and numerous other mainstream Modern Orthodox congregations have appointed women scholars to their staffs in various capacities.
Quietly and without fanfare, quality leadership tracks for women — not identical but parallel to the rabbinical track for men — have been created. Following the model that has unfolded time and again in Jewish history, evolutionary change has occurred within the confines of the halacha, not supported by all, but not ripping the community apart. And that change was poised to continue and grow.
This peaceful process ended, however, with the unilateral public move to “ordain” women on the part the open Orthodox establishment. Suddenly, we were no longer dealing with parallel tracks for men and women, but with the proposal of identical tracks. The buzzwords “ordination” and “rabbi” were now called into play, raising a hue and cry on the part of halachic authorities across the Orthodox community. The blurring of the traditional lines between the roles of men and women in Judaism became at issue, causing the unfolding path of women toward leadership to become publicly charged and controversial. The right wing of the centrist community coalesced in opposition to any changes or advancements on this front, questioning even those steps that, until then, had been tacitly approved. The left wing of open Orthodoxy responded by accusing those unwilling to accept their autonomous steps as intransigent and obstructionist.
The peaceful path towards women’s leadership, like similar paths in other controversial areas, became the subject of a bitter divide.
Perhaps, and I deeply hope this to be true, it’s not too late to roll back the clock, to save the modern Orthodox community from itself.
In a recent extraordinary panel discussion at the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, I framed the critical issues before us by noting the two covenants that God contracts with the Israelite nation at the dawn of its history: the covenant at Sinai and the covenant on the last day of Moshe’s life. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik identifies both of these agreements as clear and distinct. The contract at Sinai represents a national covenant, in which all Jews are included simply by being Jews, by birth or by choice. The second agreement, in contrast, is a direct personal contract between God and each individual Jew, across time. This agreement, unlike the first, is not automatic. It must be carefully and personally maintained, through thought and through action.
Why, I asked, are these two covenants necessary? Why doesn’t one suffice? Because, I answered, both of these covenants must be mutually respected. The maintenance of that mutual respect, in fact, sums up the challenge of each Jewish generation.
In every era, the community must respect the covenant of the individual. It is the task of the community to enfranchise as many individuals as possible; to create and present a Judaism that is warm, relevant, engaging, and welcoming; to provide opportunities for fulfillment for those who knock on its door. At the same time, however, individuals must respect the national covenant. The overarching worth of the halachic process, the process that has maintained Jewish identity across the ages, must be recognized. Values such as tradition and continuity, so essential to the unfolding of Jewish law, must be appreciated. The Judaism shaped in our day must be recognizable to the author of the Shulchan Aruch (the Code of Jewish Law), even as we respond to the unique challenges of our time. Only if both the national covenant and the covenant of the individual are mutually respected will our generation succeed in meeting its historical mandate.
Can modern Orthodoxy pull back from the divide? Can sober leaders across the community’s spectrum find a way to talk to each other about our mutual goals without rancor? Can we set aside our own egos? Can we fashion a Judaism that is relevant and traditional at the same time? Can we rediscover ways to move forward, yet remain loyal to the call of the ages? Can we avert the tragedy of our own division before it’s too late?
I pray to God that we can.
Personally, I look forward to waking up from this bad dream.